There are very few takers for Karagattam, the ancient folk dance of Tamil Nadu
The folk dance, Karagattam, is hardly seen these days. It has been sidelined by classical and modern dances and is rarely seen being performed, barring at a few festive occasions. Says S.Malaisamy, who has given more than 150 Karagattam performances in the last 13 years: “Many educational institutions are introducing yoga or karate in their curriculum. Why can’t folk arts also be introduced?”
He is one of the few Karagattam dancers who still perform to the music of the naiyaandi melam. Karagattam dancers once were proud of their art and came mostly from the rural pockets of Thanjavur, Pudukkottai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Salem and Madurai.
Some of the recognised dancers such as Malaisamy (who teaches engineering) trained at the TN South Zone Regional Folk Dance Centre, Madurai. He, along with professional dancers such as T.Thavamani and M.A.Zaffar Hussain, want to keep alive the Karagattam tradition.
There are only eight Karagattam dancers in Madurai who have been issued official Identity cards by the State Government. But they do not have much support. The card holders are entitled to Rs.1,000 per programme but are rarely given a chance to perform despite repeated requests. Many times the recognised male dancers are asked to keep off by the government officials. Most of these recognised male dancers are educated and into other jobs. And they are pursuing Karagattam out of pure passion and interest. Invitations from private and corporate sectors and temple trusts keep them going.
On condition of anonymity, some of them point out that there are more women Karagattam dancers than men now. They are from small villages and are usually poor and illiterate. They are not trained, but are often invited by the authorities to perform at government functions for very low remuneration.
Earlier, it was the Sakthi karagam performed in temples or Aatta karagam which was pure entertainment. Now, lot of acrobatic skills and circus-like acts are incorporated into the dance. For instance, Thavamani and Zaffar while balancing the pot on their heads through intricate steps and body or arm movements also dance on a rolling block of wood or up and down a ladder. Or Malaisamy who plays with fire, walks on steel mugs (padis), lifts needles and paper from the ground with his eyes, rotates on the rim of a small plate filled with water or dances on stilts. These trained dancers have also stuck to mud pots filled with water in favour of the modern practice of filling stainless steel or bronze pots filled with sand for better balance.
“The pot should never fall and break. Or else it will be a disgrace to the dance form,” says Malaisamy. It comes from years of practice and experience of synchronising the movement of every part of the body. Such a beautiful and enjoyable art form, he says, ought to be mainstreamed.
The professional Karagattam dancers wonder why the art form does not get due credit. “Karagattam requires lot of concentration, focus, hard work, dedication and practice and the dancers are willing to give it all, but who is calling us for a performance?” asks Malaisamy.
Wherever and whenever these dancers perform, they receive an overwhelming response. Sometimes they are invited to perform in TV shows, a temple festival or two or at a national or international conference. Once in a while they are invited to private functions. But they are nowhere near the top of the popularity chart.
The 1989 Tamil movie Karagattakaran gave a boost to the nearly-forgotten dance form, especially because of the music by Ilaiyaraja and the hit song "Maanguyilae Poonguyile."
For the kargattam dancers, public recognition and government acknowledgment is still missing. “People can name so many Bharatanatyam dancers, but can they name even one Karagattam dancer?” asks Malaisamy. Does your child who attends hip-hop or salsa classes even know what Karagattam is?